Three things to know about Black males and Suicide

Black male suicides are on the rise. There is a silent epidemic that is plaguing our Black males. The rate of depression has quadrupled among Black males in the last 20 years. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death for Black males ages 15-24. Additionally, of the 1500 children ages 6-12 who have committed suicide in the last 10 years, 36% were Black males. These statistics indicate that a generation of young Black males are growing up feeling hopeless, helpless, and ashamed. Furthermore, these young Black males are experiencing a chronic devaluation that has contributed to a posture of worthlessness and a feeling that their beautiful Black lives will not be missed if they are ended prematurely. What was once considered a “White problem” has robbed even the youngest of our Black males of fulfilling and impactful lives.     

Self-hatred and silent frustration are major contributors. Black males are constantly bombarded with negative images of Black masculinity and conflicting expectations of their Blackness that lead them to both hate and fear those that look like them. As Black males struggle to live up to the conflicting expectations of their Black maleness, their hatred and fear towards other Black males turns inward and they begin to hate themselves.  Silent frustration stems from Black males feeling unable to influence their surroundings and developing feelings of rage and anger towards society and their communities. These feelings create conflict within the Black male because of the conundrum of being angry at something that he feels he cannot change or influence.

This rage then moves from the society, to his community, and then ultimately within himself. Unable to verbalize the underlying feelings of shame and guilt (due to a restricted emotionality) this rage manifests as acts of violence shattering his interpersonal relationships and support systems within his community. Isolated and alone, the Black male develops feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness because of the constellation of emotions he is experiencing (shame, rage, and guilt) and the perceived lack of adaptive outlet for their expression and processing. With their coping resources exhausted and feeling isolated from their support systems, these Black men are regulated to suffering in silence, frustrated with their experience of racism/ and discrimination, and their perceived inability to effectively manage this conflict.

Suicide is preventable. The combination of self-hatred and frustration can contribute to a deafening silence for Black males that prevents them from hearing messages of affirmation in the face of feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. However, there are three steps we can take to show these Black males that we care and connect them to the help they need: (1) ask direct questions, (2) don’t dismiss, and (3) identify opportunities for support. Ask an individual directly and with specific questions if you are concerned about them hurting themselves. For example, ask “are you having thoughts of hurting yourself” or “have you thought about ending your life” vs “are you thinking about not being here” or “do you wish you could go to sleep and not wake up.” Take any communication about suicide or self-harm seriously and do not dismiss as a call for attention, a sign of weakness or inability to handle a situation, or a phase. Lastly, be prepared to offer resources or support if the answer is “yes” to thoughts of self-harm or suicide. A helpful resource is the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which you can find here.

Three things you should know about racial trauma

Racial trauma has a negative impact on the mental and physical health of Black people. Several studies have indicated that racial trauma can contribute to an increase in the experience of physical and mental illnesses such as hypertension, acid reflux, depression, anxiety, and migraines. The stress that comes with racial trauma (e.g., race-related stress) creates a space where Black individuals are constantly on guard for potential racially traumatic events.

Black individuals use all their physical and mental resources (e.g., flight, fight, or freeze response, and distraction or avoidance) to cope with the experience of racial trauma. However, these coping responses can be harder to use if they must be used often or if there are more negative events than the Black individual is able to cope with such as the loss of social power in the form of economic exploitation. The over use of coping responses for racial trauma can contribute to physical breakdowns in the body as well as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that can develop into anxiety and depression.

The impact of racial trauma is transmitted across generations. From the beginning of slavery here in America, Black individuals have had to compartmentalize their experience of culture erasing, life threatening, family dissolving, racism and discrimination. Each generation of Black individuals tucked their experience of racism and discrimination into a racially traumatized box which was then passed on to the next generation for them to add their own experiences of racism and discrimination. However, most generations have not unpacked these boxes instead leaving them to clutter the attics of their minds. This racial trauma clutter can contribute to issues related to concentration, impulsivity, and poor decision making.

The negative effects of racial trauma can be prevented. There are a number of steps Black individuals can make to prevent the mental and physical health challenges associated with race-related stress as well as the transmission of racial trauma such as the following:  (1) get help and help others get help early, (2) foster collectivist spaces, (3) become critical consumers of media, (4) encourage spaces for healthy emotional expression (5) provide immersive experiences in Black/African history, and (6) take time to process racially traumatizing experiences with yourself and others.   

Helping others get help (and knowing what to say) for mental health concerns

How to help others get help

  • Show your support
  • Listen
  • Ask what you can do to help
  • Ask if your friend/family member is getting the treatment that he/she wants and needs
  • Reassure your friend/family member that you still care about them
  • Support your friend/family member’s health behaviors
  • Take care of your self
  • Talk about mental health
  • Know how to connect people to help
  • Communicate in a straightforward manner
  • Discuss the topic when and where the person feels safe and comfortable
  • Educate others about mental health to reduce the stigma

Things to say

  • I know you have a real illness and that’s what causes these thoughts and feelings
  • I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel but I care about you and want to help
  • You are important to me. Your life is important to me
  • You might not believe it now, but the way you are feeling now will change
  • You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.
  • Talk to me. I’m listening.

Things not to say

  • It’s all in your head
  • We all go through times like this
  • You have so much to live for, why do you want to die?
  • Just snap out of it. Look on the bright side
  • You will be fine stop worrying
  • Here’s my advice…..

Top Three Reasons Black people should go to therapy

We are suffering: According to the Center for Hate and Extremism, Black people are the most hated race in America. Combine this experience with over 400 years of racism, discrimination, and second class citizenship along with the various forms of social control used to attempt to subjugate Black people (e.g., lynching and mass incarceration) and you have a race of people who have endured chronic generational trauma. The ongoing experience of chronic hate and generationally transmitted trauma have negatively influenced the physical and psychological health of Black individuals with many studies suggesting a strong link between chronic illness and racial trauma. We should go to therapy because we got a lot to talk about.

We are resilient: Encoded in the DNA of every Black individual is the resourcefulness, strength, and connectedness that was needed to survive a metaphorical “splitting of self.” The Africans transported across the Middle Passage essentially had their cultures forcibly removed from them and had to recreate a sense of self from nothing with only memories and stories to guide them as the generations progressed. However, out of this process arose a Black culture that has been revered for its authenticity, creativeness, and ability to give voice and connect others. The process of therapy can help Black people to rediscover their resiliency.

We get better: Although, Black individuals are the least likely of any racial group to seek out therapy services, we get better at rates equal to or greater than our counterparts when we engage in therapy. Recent research has found that around 80% of Black individuals who participate in therapy report a significant reduction in distress. Our natural way of being as a culture supports this process through our emphasis on relationship building, narration and verbal communication, emotional expression, and process orientation. Essentially, who we are as a people helps us get better through the process of therapy.   

The top five reasons Black people don’t go to therapy

For many mental health issues, Black individuals experience similar rates of challenges compared to their counterparts. However, the severity of the challenges comes at a much greater cost for Black people due to compounding issues such as racism and discrimination. Furthermore, mental health issues that were once thought to be “White” concerns have cast a large shadow over the lives of Black people (e.g., suicide). The good news is that Black individuals that participate in therapy have the highest rates of success. So the question becomes if Black people are struggling with greater severity when experiencing mental health issues, but reap the most benefit, why are they the least likely to go to therapy? This post explores five reasons why Black people don’t go to therapy including: chronic mistrust, a lack of professionals of color, limited access, fear of misdiagnosis, and concerns about confidentiality.

Mistrust: For generations, the exploitation of the Black body as well as the pathologizing of the Black experience has contributed to a significant mistrust of medical professionals. Stories of medical tests and procedures, such as the Tuskegee experiment, being conducted on Black people have been passed down through the generations communicating a lack of value for Black life, health and healing. Additionally, ever since the first African stepped foot on American soil, Black individuals have fought to thrive and not just survive the atrocities of slavery, second class citizenship, and legal discrimination. However, at every turn, those Black individuals who have fought for freedom and equality have had their experience reduced to an abnormality that has been quantified in diagnoses such as Drapetomania (unrealistic desire to be free) and Protest Psychosis (unrealistic desire to be equal).

Lack of professionals of color: When individuals are experiencing issues related to mistrust, seeing someone that looks like you in the profession can serve as a bridge towards a trusting relationship. However, Black people are significantly underrepresented in the mental health field. For example, in the field of psychology less than 5% of psychologist are Black. The process of therapy requires individuals to exist in a space of ongoing vulnerability. However, Black people are less likely to inhabit this space if the therapist in the room is a reflection of racial oppression and is unaware of their complicity in the system.

Limited Access: Due to the transition of many mental health professionals to private pay practices, many Black individuals are priced out of mental health services. Instead, these individuals are forced to navigate large mental health systems with potentially long waits for services or seek temporary help via emergency services. This experience leaves Black individuals in a bind where they can’t afford quality services with a clinician who has potentially fewer clients and a faster turnaround time in a private practice. Instead, they must settle for less frequent care with a clinician who has a considerably higher case load in a larger mental health system. Black people who are already mistrustful of the system and observe a lack of professionals that look like them are further frustrated by an inaccessible system as they attempt to seek the services they need.   

Fear of Mis-diagnosis: There is power in mental health diagnoses. These diagnoses can open doors to much needed services and deeper understanding. However, the diagnoses can also close doors and increase stigma. For Black people, receiving a mental health diagnosis can compound the stigma already associated with the Black experience. Furthermore, mental health professionals are not immune from the negative narratives associated with Black people. Terms such as the “angry Black woman,” “scary Black man” or “defiant Black child” influence the way mental health professionals view and understand mental health issues facing Black people.

Concerns about confidentiality: The mystery that surrounds the process of therapy as well as the inherent mistrust that many Black people have about therapy create a space where individuals are unsure of how their narratives are received and recorded. By law, mental health professionals have one of the highest standards for protecting information shared during therapy. However, this fact is often not communicated well and leaves individuals to figure out for themselves the difference between talking with a friend (where the limits of confidentiality are based on the strength of the relationship) and talking with a therapist (where the limits of confidentiality are based on legal mandates).